The People's Bible by Joseph Parker
And Moses gathered all the congregation of the children of Israel together, and said unto them, These are the words which the LORD hath commanded, that ye should do them.The Popular Response
The first nineteen verses of this chapter contain the speech which Moses delivered to the congregation of the children of Israel, being the words which the Lord himself had commanded. These nineteen verses are, indeed, a condensation of all that is reported in detail in the previous chapters which we have studied with some particularity. Our immediate concern is the answer of the people. Let the scene vividly present itself to the eyes of our imagination. Moses has been in secret conference with the Lord in the mountain; he has received instructions of a very detailed and critical kind; he has come down and has reported to all Israel what he has heard in the tabernacle of cloud; the proposition is now fairly before the people. Wonderful, they seem to make no reply at once. That is scarcely matter of surprise. Never was speech of the kind made to mortal ears before. It seemed to overlook all time, all faculty, all opportunity, to vex and distress every line and fibre of the human soul and the human constitution. The instruction was critical up to the point of vexatiousness, and exacting up to the point of extortion. It was a frightful claim. The people seem to have paused awhile—to have gone away from Moses and to have thought over the whole matter. The twentieth verse is therefore a verse of negation; we simply read that "all the congregation of the children of Israel departed from the presence of Moses." We have often departed from the altar; we have often left the church, saying, "Who is sufficient for these things? This altar demands much from us,—yea, it lays its voracious hand upon our whole life." So thinking, we have left the threshold of the church, silently, somewhat sullenly, with a great wonder brooding in the heart, not being certain within ourselves whether we should have returned to hear speech so exasperating and so all-claiming. Let us be charitable to the silence of men. Perhaps they may come again not the less enthusiastically that they have gone away under the silence of a great surprise. Religion is nothing if it is not great. Were it to come to us with mean petitions, we might go back to it with meaner prayers; but religion comes claiming all, and therefore entitles us to return claiming according to the same scale; so the claim of Heaven and the prayer of men balance one another in sublime and honest equilibrium. The Lord had said long ago, "Let us make man," so now he seems to say to man, "Let us make the tabernacle." As there was a plural in the creation, so there is a plural in this building. God seeks human cooperation. We forget that the tabernacle is as much for men as it is for God. We call the church "the house of God," and so it is; yet there is an obvious and deeply solemn sense in which the church is also the house of Man. We put the church away from us among the clouds which conceal the superstitions when we think of it only as the house of God. It is that first; but it is only God's house that it may be our house in some tenderer way. It is our Father's house. It is the only house in which man can truly see himself. In other houses he is flattered, but never in the house of God; in other houses man sees a picture of himself, and wonders at the delicacy of the artist who could so make colour and form speak so eloquently, but in the house of God man sees himself as he really is, and what he is he only knows who has been closeted alone with God. The ignorant man does not know how ignorant he is; so long as he keeps company with his equals, the whole earth moves tardily along one low level; but when an ignorant man comes in contact with intelligence, the intelligence need assume no attitude of superiority—need speak in no tone of dominance. Ignorance feels itself to be little, small, contemptible, feeble. Increase the intelligence, and you increase the humiliation; add to the intelligence, and you deepen the sense of disparity and unworthiness. What is true intellectually is, if one might so say, truer still morally. We know not what we are till we see the holiness of God. The house of God is the symbolic home; it is the gate of heaven; it stands—insulated by infinite sacredness, yet approachable through all holy sympathies—between time and eternity. It is neither here nor there; it overleaps both spaces. God devised the house; Man built it; the house is built for two and only two,—the one the infinite God, the other the all but infinite Humanity.
When the people returned they came back with enthusiastic haste,—hearts were stirred up, hands were wide opened, the whole life had begun, the agony and the delight of sacrifice. How the answer throbs with love! Can love be mistaken? Is there not an accent in its voice that can be heard in no other speech? Has it not a manner of its own? Does it ever cease—saying, "That is enough"? Does it keep back one bracelet, earring, jewel, skin of ram, or badger-skin? We want less argument and more love. But love is an argument. We do injustice to enthusiasm when we depose it from a position amongst the logical powers and authorities. Enthusiasm is reasoning on fire—ablaze with that ardour which burns but does not consume. Coldness is the deadliest enemy. Fear the cold man more than the atheist. He sends a chill through all the regions of the Church; no hymn lifts him into rapture; no view of Divine truth transfigures him or makes his raiment glisten with sparkles of light; he is outside the fire of the most burning appeal; yet for some inscrutable reason he is within the lines of the visible Church. The cold man is not brought up for excommunication, but he ought to be. We expel the drunkard, as we deem him to be such, though no drunkard may he be in heart; yet we call the cold man respectable. Our discipline needs revision. The drunkard—for whom I have no word of commendation in so far as he has fallen from sobriety—may be the better man of the two. A cold professor of religion is the deadliest enemy of the Cross. His theology is formally right; in the letter he is orthodox enough, even to satisfy geometry; but he is heterodox in soul, he is a heretic in feeling; the temperature of his heart shows that he may have the form of godliness but not the power. Were it given to me to appeal to all the ages of time and all the nominal followers of Christ, I think I should adopt the tone of a man who is afraid of coldness rather than of opposition, of iciness of feeling rather than of intellectual hostility. Herein the Church is fatally wrong. She will endorse the cold man and expel the earnest contemplatist and speculatist; she lays hands on daring yet reverent speculation, and allows the cold man to lift up his hand of ice in sign of legitimate ecclesiastical authority. Better have two men in your congregation who are in burning earnest than a houseful of men whose souls are destitute of enthusiasm. You gain in weight what you lose in number; you gain in force what you lose in show. The prayer of every devout heart should be: "Baptise me as with fire."
The answer of the people was marked by the spirit of willinghood. Some form of the word willing occurs again and again: "Every one whom his spirit made willing"; "As many as were willing-hearted." God will have nothing out of the reluctant hand. We may throw an offering down, but it is not taken up by Heaven. It evaporates downwards; it is not received by the condescending and sympathetic sun. There are people, blessed be God, in every Christian land, who are content to find their whole joy in doing good. They say they have no higher delight; they are inventive in beneficence; a smile irradiates the face as with an inner light when they have hit upon some new method of showing love and loyalty to God. The Church is large enough for all they are and have, and if its line leave any out side, they will extend the Church so as to include all things harmless, beautiful, tender, gracious; and so the Church roof shall be large as the firmament. This is the ideal towards which we should work. See what willingness implies. Being intelligent, it means conviction, saying, if not in words yet in actions, "This is right: this is the road that leads onward, upward, Godward, and we take it inch by inch,—here very steep, there almost dangerous; but this is the road." It implies self-denial. There are men—strange as the sentiment may sound in our ears—abasing all miracles into commonplaces, who do deny themselves that they may have another coal to put upon God's altar. There is no miracle Diviner than that extravagance of economy;—men who pinch themselves that the child may have another year's schooling, women who say nothing of their deprivations that they may add something to the success of some cause of progress and righteousness. There are men and women who have concentrated themselves upon what they believe to be a Divine work, and they are the men and women who make the noblest and brightest chapters in history. There may even be a touch of superstition in their veneration; submitted to a very close analysis, what they do may exhibit here and there a combination and admixture of elements hardly to be approved by an absolutely accurate chemistry; but the fire that is in them is a wondrous solvent and disinfectant, and is accepted of God, who is himself fire, as something kindred to his own eternal nature. Out of such conviction and self-denial there comes a process of education. We thus become used to certain methods and sacrifices. A habit is begun, continued, consolidated, and at last it expresses itself in new solidities of character. We cannot build a tabernacle in a day. The tabernacle is a symbol of life or it is nothing. This beautiful creation in the desert—something between a thought and a thing—is a symbol of that nobler tabernacle—human life, spirit, character; and we know that the element of time has much to do with the perfecting of the building. It takes a long time to make a fit tabernacle—it will take the time of eternity.
The answer was enthusiastic and expressed willinghood, ana yet it involved work of every kind. A Church must go to work if it would enjoy the spirit of unity and peace.
The answer was the deepest and truest cure of all murmuring, The people had been murmuring again and again, but the moment they began to work they ceased to complain. A new music steals into the strain of the history; we hear the motion, we observe the activity, we are astounded by the energy; and what appears to be the tumult of enthusiasm and passion settles into a deep harmony of consent and sacrifice. You would murmur less if you worked more. An evil thing is idleness. It must always sit with coldness, and the two must keep one another in evil countenance. Yet we have come to such a time in the history of things when the sons of rich men have nothing to do, and therefore they do mischief with both hands. Their fathers made the money, rendering work unnecessary, and therefore the sons rot in corruption or become enfeebled through inaction. It is the same in the Church: the great wars are all over and "the battle flag is furled." Now we have come to periods of criticism, dilettanteism, easy and self-comforting speculation; we have turned theology into a box of toys or into a chest of wooden mysteries which we open from time to time trying to fit the pieces into some reluctant unity. Persecution is dead; penalty for conviction is obsolete. We have fallen upon the evil times of theological exhaustion and luxury. Verily, we are dainty in our taste now; some men we will not hear,—without knowing them, without so much as having heard their names, we turn away in implied disgust from their offered ministry. This comes of living in periods of intellectual and theological confectionery. What is to be done? Who can tell? It is easy to go with the multitude; it is comfortable to have no convictions; it is delightful to be relieved of every duty but the pleasant one of passing criticism upon other people. The tabernacle is built, the temple is finished, theology is concluded, the last volume has been published, all the standards have been erected, and we have fallen upon the evil times of having nothing to do. We are wrong; there is more to be done now than there ever was before; every wall of the sanctuary is to be heightened,—the foundation we cannot touch, that was laid in eternity; but what room there is for enlargement, for improvement, for increase of hospitality, for growth in all noblest wisdom and sympathy! What an opportunity there is this day for the Church to stand outside her own hospitable walls and say to the sons of men, "This is your Father's house, and in it there is bread enough and to spare"! The Church includes all other houses that are at all good, or that want to be good. What is the Church to our imagination? Let there be one great central meeting-place;—but that will not suffice. Round about there must be a thousand little houses,—outer dependencies having direct connection with the house-fire and with the house-comfort; so near that the voice of prayer can be overheard; so near that now and again some gentle tone of celestial appeal can penetrate. All schools, all asylums that express the spirit of philanthropy, all houses devoted to the education and the culture of the human soul with all its varied mystery of faculty, should be included. I would let them all build against the Church, so that the Church should be one wall of the building; and the time may come when all the outside dependencies and attachments may be turned inside; then we shall know the meaning of the doctrine uttered by the sweetest of all voices: "In my Father's house are many mansions." The eternal appeal of Heaven is for service. This is the wisdom of God; he keeps us at work,—work which he lightens with pleasure, which he intermits by many a Sabbath day's enjoyment and quietude,—work which brings its own reward; work which is not service only but payment on the spot; we are rewarded by the mere doing of it. When we are in the passion of the service we feel that any other compensation than that given by service itself is unequal to the sublime occasion; it fills the soul, it enchants the spirit with highest delight; it brings the worker every eventide into the very peace and security of heaven. The one thing to be feared is stagnation. That is to be feared with all the terror possible to the human soul. Fear no opposition, fear no atheism, infidelity, unbelief, controversy,—hail it; welcome it; your enemies may be turned into your friends; but what can we do with stagnation? That is the deadliest unbelief;—disbelief as implying intellectual activity it is not, but unbelief as implying intellectual stagnation and spiritual death it is, and therefore it is the worst form of opposition to the demands of Heaven. Better have a tumult than stagnation. Better that our services should be interrupted than that they should be conducted perfunctorily, beginning in coldness and ending in some deadlier chill. Better have war than death. Hear Heaven's sweet appeal for service, for sacrifice, and know that the appeal is not the demand of exaggeration, but that it is inspired by the very spirit of consideration for human feeling, and expresses the very philosophy of human spiritual education.
Almighty God, thou dost pity the weak and encourage them that have no strength. Thou art known unto us as a shepherd. Thou dost carry the lambs in thine arms,—yea, thou dost hide them in thy bosom as if thou didst care for them with the solicitude of love. Their weakness is thine opportunity: they never know what a shepherd thou art until they are distressed by weariness. It is so with every soul amongst us. We do not know thee in our pride and haughtiness, in the abundance of our strength and wealth; we say then, There is no God. So thou dost chasten us and abase us with many an affliction. Thou dost bark the fig-tree and take away the one good plant, and turn all our clients and supporters away from our door; thou dost send a sharp pain into the head, and thou dost afflict every joint with rheum; and then we look around, and wonder, and cry, and ask for any man who can bring up the Samuel we have despised. We have run with the footmen, and they have outrun us: we have tried our strength with the horses, and they have fled away far beyond us; now that the swellings of Jordan have next to be encountered we are dismayed. But thou wilt help us; even at the last, thou wilt not forsake us. Thou mightest well do so, for we have turned our backs upon thee, and have been pleased with any idol that could for the moment dazzle and fascinate our fancy. But thou art pitiful; thou wouldest rather save than destroy; thou hast no pleasure in the death of the wicked, thou hast no pleasure in any death that is not the precursor and condition of larger life: then it is not death but some servant of thine whom thou dost employ in thine infinite household. We are wanderers, and the darkness has come on suddenly: find a rest for us. We are mariners, and all the winds of Heaven have seized upon us, and we are rolling and staggering to and fro like drunken men: Lord, give the elements charge concerning us. We live for one little day, and we ruin the generation that comes after us by foolish careful kindness. We toil and slave, and mass our wealth, and spare our young ones from toil and labour, and, behold, we have wrecked them and made fools of them. Pity us! Our kindness is a mistake; our prevision is blindness. Give us great lessons, great comforts, great blessings, in the Lord of the Cross,—the Man who shed his blood, the Saviour of the world,—mighty to save, unwilling to destroy. Amen.